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Clive Gower-Collins Articles
Long Range Desert Group North Africa

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Raids, Road Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
Raids, Road Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
by Clive Gower-Collins

Introduction

Brain-child of a Royal Signals officer, Major Ralph Bagnold, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was formed in Egypt in June 1940 to meet the British Middle East Command's urgent need for reliable tactical intelligence. Bagnold's Commander-in-Chief, General Archibald Wavell, recognised the dangerously impoverished state of Britain's intelligence resources early in the Desert War and authorised the formation of the unit, charging it with the responsibility for conducting reconnaissance deep in the Libyan Desert. An acute shortage of British manpower at the time and the fortuitous presence of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force led to New Zealand making a strong commitment to the LRDG which lasted throughout the three years of the desert campaign.

Origins and Establishment

With the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939, and the possibility of war with Italy, proposals were made for the establishment of a specialised unit to carry out reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and raiding deep in the Libyan Desert. Initially, none of these proposals was accepted. It took a combination of Italy's decision to declare war on 10 June 1940, and a Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) known for his "love of the unorthodox"[1], General Archibald Wavell, to provide adequate stimulus for the foundation of what were initially described as the 'Long Range Patrols'.

A quarter of a century before the establishment of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), British commanders entrusted with Egypt's defence had faced the possibility of an attack from the west. The open terrain of North Africa demanded mobile troops and, in the British Army of 1915, mobility meant horses. The reliance of these units upon ready supplies of food and water rendered them incapable of undertaking tasks that took them more than a few kilometres from the northern coast. In order to patrol the desert frontier further inland, 'Light Car Patrols' were raised. It was then that the earliest experiments were made in motorised desert travel. However, the close of hostilities in 1918 brought the army's interest in mobile desert patrols largely to an end. Troops in vehicles would still occasionally make their way out into the 'western desert', but now on the affairs of the Desert Survey Office, a branch of the Egyptian 'Frontier Districts Administration'.[2]

Official surveys and private expeditions, including those sustained by the Royal Geographical Society, continued throughout the inter-war period. Such excursions helped continue crucial developments in desert navigation, mechanical modifications that enabled vehicles to cope with the demands of terrain and climate, and personal desert skills. As Bill Kennedy Shaw, a former LRDG intelligence officer points out: "To exist at all in the Qattara Depression or in the Sand Sea in June or in the Gebel Akhdar in February is in itself a science which practice develops into an art."[3] More than a few members of this band of desert explorers went on to make exceptional contributions to the Allied war effort in North Africa. Principally this was as LRDG officers and navigators, although there were also individuals such as Vladimir Peniakoff who gained recognition as the commander of 'Popski's Private Army'.

The LRDG owed its existence to the doggedness of one of the 'band's' members, Major Ralph Bagnold. Chance found Bagnold in Egypt in late 1939 where he repeatedly suggested to his superiors the establishment of a desert reconnaissance unit. Acceptance of his idea followed the Italian declaration of war in June 1940 and a summons by his C-in-C, General Wavell to explain his ideas. Bagnold later recalled:

I was sent for by Wavell and I told him that we needed a small mobile force able to penetrate the Desert to the west of Egypt to see what was going on.
Wavell said: 'What if you find the Italians are not doing anything in the interior at all?'
I said without thinking: 'How about some piracy on the high desert?'
At this his rather stern face broke into a grin, and he said: 'Can you be ready in six weeks?'
I replied: 'Yes, provided . . .'
'Yes, I know,' he interrupted, 'there'll be opposition and delay.'
He then rang his bell and a lieutenant-general came in as the Chief-of-Staff.
Wavell said: "Bagnold seeks a talisman. Get this typed out and I'll sign it straightaway: "I wish that any request made by Major Bagnold in person should be met instantly and without question." '
And it was like a talisman. I had complete carte blanche to do anything I liked.[4]

Whatever criticisms could be made of some of Wavell's judgements as a military commander, his decision to allow the formation of the Long Range Patrols demonstrated a judicious appreciation of the North African situation.[5] Events during the preceding eight months had left Wavell in a position inferior to the Italians in terms of both manpower and material. British productive capacity had been exceeded in building-up the British Expeditionary Force, making up for the loss of nearly all the Force's equipment in the flight from Dunkirk, and expanding the British 'Home' defence forces in the ensuing panic. So supplies to the Middle East forces had been token at best. This was compounded by the fact that in the previous October Wavell had been advised that he was to observe a "defensive policy" and that any demands he made for forces and their material requisites were to be based upon this.[6] Even the increasing arrival of reinforcements from Australia, New Zealand, India and other Commonwealth and Empire countries did little to ease his predicament as the contribution was one of good keen men accompanied by little or no equipment.

However, despite the apparent superiority of their position, the Italians demonstrated little eagerness in June 1940 for attacking the British outright. Instead, they limited themselves to what the British Official History disparagingly describes as: "a rather clumsy form of reconnaissance".[7] Wavell's fear was that his somewhat poorly motivated Italian enemy might be augmented by German armour and motorised infantry, thereby adding both substance and resolve to the danger from the West.

Any threat to the Upper Nile and the British river-borne supply route from Khartoum to Cairo was of paramount concern.[8] The "Admiralty declared themselves unable to pass even military convoys through the Mediterranean on account of the air dangers,"[9] and the Luftwaffe bombed and mined the Suez Canal.[10] Hence, heavy equipment had to be landed at Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and rail transported across to the Nile. The Italian capture of the Kufra Oasis 700 miles south-west of Cairo from the native tribesmen in 1931 had intensified this potential threat to the Nile route, as it was the key to the southern region of Libya known as the Fezzan. Two possibilities had to be planned for. Firstly, that the enemy might use Kufra as a base for launching a ground and airborne drive across to the Red Sea, and cutting Wavell's re-supply route for forces in Egypt and the Sudan. Secondly, Italian forces located beyond Matruh and Sollum might attempt to seize Egypt, while forces in Eritrea and Abyssinia attacked the Sudan in an effort to unite Axis-held Libya with Italian possessions in East Africa.[11]

In meeting these threats, Wavell's situation might have been improved had the intelligence resources at his disposal been adequate to provide him with detailed intelligence of enemy movements and capabilities. Instead, an optimistic view of the unlikelihood of another war and the desire to curb military spending in the wake of the costs of World War One did much to ensure that "while the resources deployed on military intelligence are bound to be run down in peace-time, they were reduced after 1918 for a longer period and to a greater extent than was wise."[12] Those that remained acquired a new emphasis towards air-intelligence that reflected predictions that the wars of the future would be 'air-wars'. Even in this Wavell was unfortunate, as the reconnaissance aircraft available to him lacked the necessary range to provide the information he required. In 1940, Air Chief Marshal Longmore's demands for a more suitable type of aircraft were still a long way from being met. The only option was to persevere with the few Lysanders already present, but they lacked both range and defensive capability, demanding constant fighter escorts.[13] The threat of an invasion of England was given as the principal reason that aircraft could not be spared for Middle East duty.[14] Not that additional aircraft would have helped much, given that only one of the existing five Egyptian airfields had a runway capable of supporting the operation of modern aircraft.[15]

A significant intelligence asset available to senior British commanders throughout the war was high-grade signals intelligence (SIGINT); yet even this was denied to Wavell due to Italy substituting many of her critical ciphers on declaring war. Britain's continuing ability to decode Italian diplomatic signals was of small consolation as these dealt largely with trade and Italian intelligence efforts, shedding little light on operations or plans.[16] The break-through with the Italian Air Force ciphers, which would contribute so much to the British counter-offensive in December, could not have been foreseen at this time.[17]

However, Wavell's lack of intelligence resources was not simply the outcome of two decades of parsimony and a measure of Italian prudence. A contributing factor was that, taken as a whole, military intelligence had been regarded by officers for years as underhand, contemptible, the very antithesis of the ethos of the officer corps with its emphasis on honour and courage. Labouring under such a stigma, the outcome was inevitable. As military psychologist Norman Dixon observes: "The history of the various departments of espionage and counter-espionage, of 'special operations' and the like, is one of badly staffed, ill-equipped Cinderella organisations struggling to perform their duties in the face of contempt, jealousy, and resentment."[18]

Wavell did not subscribe to this antipathetic attitude towards intelligence, even though he suffered as a result of its pervasiveness. In fact, leading intelligence historian F. H. Hinsley stresses that Wavell was a "notable exception", and elsewhere he is accepted as being blessed with " imagination and love of the unorthodox".[19] These personal attributes certainly had much to do with Wavell's ability to recognise the opportunity presented by Bagnold's suggestion. However, before putting Wavell into too 'visionary' a light, it is worth recognising that forces operating at a numerical or material disadvantage have a strong incentive to operate 'unconventionally'. Clausewitz suggests: "The weaker the forces that are at the disposal of the supreme commander, the more appealing the use of cunning becomes. The bleaker the situation . . . [the] more readily cunning is joined to daring".[20] A former Oxford Don turned officer, David Hunt offered a slightly different explanation. He recalled that in the early years of the war he noticed

A certain lack of self-confidence among regular officers. They had been under attack so long from the intellectuals, with [cartoonist] Low and his Colonel Blimp marching at their head, that some of them began to have doubts about their firmest opinions. Many times in the coming years I was surprised at the way in which regular officers whom I knew to have keen and acute brains would allow themselves to be put upon by bogus intellectuals . . . they [the officers] knew they were supposed to be hidebound, conventional and set in their ways; it was less trouble in the long run to allow a little waste to take place rather than get themselves written down as unimaginative. A good deal of the proliferation of special forces, private armies, separate intelligence-gathering organizations, was due to the same fear.[21]

Thus armed with both motives and means, Wavell approved the establishment of the Long Range Patrols with the objectives of "Reconnaissance, military, geographical and political. For propaganda among tribes in distant parts of enemy territory . . . To cause the enemy to expend fuel, vehicles and aircraft in protecting both his isolated posts and their supply columns against attack."[22]

With Wavell's support for raising the patrols, Bagnold arranged for other interwar desert explorers to join him.[23] He later reflected on their contribution:

The very long raids across the whole width of Libya which have been carried out by the patrols have only been made possible by the presence of one or two officers with many years experience of similar work in peace time. It is doubtful if patrol leaders without such experience would ever learn enough in war time to achieve comparable results.[24]

This group of officers, the official British war history suggests:

felt that no recruits would be more suitable than men from the 'outback', like some of the Queenslanders in Palestine, but the Australian Government was opposed to its men serving outside Australian formations and General Blamey felt unable to agree. Three patrols, each of two officers and about thirty men, were chosen from the New Zealanders in Egypt.[25]

The suggestion that the New Zealanders were approached only following an Australian refusal is an interesting and doubtful one. It was true that Blamey was asked by the British to lend a variety of specialised units, and had refused "point-blank,"[26] but the official view does not correspond with Bagnold's own account:

Within six weeks we'd got together a volunteer force of New Zealanders. The New Zealand Division had arrived in Egypt but had yet to be supplied with arms and equipment because of shipping losses. So they were at a loose end. Apart from that, I wanted responsible volunteers who knew how to look after and maintain things, rather than the ordinary British Tommy who was apt to be wasteful. They were a marvellous lot of people, mostly sheep farmers who'd had trucks of their own and were used to looking after them.[27]

The former patrol commander and eventual Commanding Officer of the LRDG, David Lloyd Owen, supports Bagnold, suggesting: "Although I have been aware of this claim I do not believe there is any substance in it."[28] Bagnold, in the presence of General Wilson and various staff officers, put the request for volunteers to Brigadier Edward Puttick, commander of the New Zealand troops in Egypt.[29] Puttick agreed in principle, subject to final authorisation by the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force's (2NZEF) commander, General Bernard Freyberg, V.C. Cabling his superior in London on 1 July, Puttick pointed out: "The greater part can be provided from the Divisional Cavalry, and the remainder from various units without impairing efficiency, using personnel for whom equipment is not available. The Divisional Cavalry welcome the opportunity of higher training and experience and relief from monotony".[30] The following day, Freyberg cabled his approval of Puttick's request.

The speed of preparation reflected Bagnold's promise to Wavell to have the patrols ready in only six weeks. On the evening of 4 July, the first volunteers from the New Zealand Division reported for duty at the Royal Armoured Corps Base Depot at Abbassia. In four days these men and a few from the Royal Armoured Corps took over barracks, administration offices, technical and quartermaster's stores and prepared for the arrival of the bulk of the volunteers. By 11 July, the first of two former Egyptian Army trucks arrived after being modified in the workshops of the Pharonic Mail Line in Alexandria. On 16 July, the greater part of the New Zealand party arrived from their base at Maadi. Training in gunnery, signals, driving and use of the 'Bagnold Sun-compass' began the next morning. The balance of the New Zealand personnel marched in to Abbassia on 25 July and were arranged into patrols. Training continued with the vehicles venturing further and further afield. A formal inspection of '1 Long Range Patrol' by the Commander-in-Chief, General Wavell took place on 27 August, followed by an informal visit by Brigadier Puttick to look in on his men three days later.[31]

Trained and equipped, Bagnold's Long Range Patrol was ready for operations, unaware that a dispute over British 'borrowing' of New Zealand troops would soon become serious enough to throw this, or any other, New Zealand contribution to the LRDG into doubt.

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Copyright © 2006 Clive Gower-Collins.

Written by Clive Gower-Collins. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Clive Gower-Collins at:

Clive Gower-Collins
PO Box 2526
Wellington 6011
New Zealand

About the author:
Clive Gower-Collins lives in Wellington, New Zealand and has served in the New Zealand Army in both Infantry and Engineer roles. Currently a manager with Biosecurity New Zealand, He has worked for a number of years across the public service specialising in leadership and organisational performance. He has written articles, presented conference papers and given radio interviews on coalition warfare and the LRDG.  His research interests tend to focus on aspects of intelligence in warfare (the general focus of his MA in History) and German aircraft design and production in the inter-war years and throughout WWII (the focus of his Honours research).

Published online: 07/24/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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